geological sciences

New view of California’s tectonic plates

BROWN (US) — The highest resolution picture ever obtained of southern California’s lithosphere shows its thickness differs markedly, offering new insight into how rifting shaped the area’s terrain.

Rifting is one of the fundamental geological forces shaping the planet, but because it involves areas deep below the Earth’s surface, scientists have been unable to understand fully how it occurs. What is known is that with rifting, the center of the action lies in the lithosphere, which makes up the tectonic plates—including the crust and part of the upper mantle.

“What we’re getting at is how (continental) plates break apart,” says Vedran Lekic, postdoctoral researcher at Brown University and first author on the paper. “What happens below the surface is just not known.”


Geologists measured the boundary separating the lithosphere from the more ductile layer just below it known as the asthenosphere in a 400-by-300-mile grid, an area that includes Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Diego, and the Salton Trough. The lithosphere’s thickness varies surprisingly from less than 25 miles to nearly 60 miles, according to the research, published in Science.

“We see these really dramatic changes in lithosphere thickness, and these occur over very small horizontal distances,” says Karen Fischer, professor of geological sciences at Brown and a paper author. “That means that the deep part of the lithosphere, the mantle part, has to be strong enough to maintain relatively steep sides.”

“This approach provides a new way to put observational constraints on how strong the rocks are at these depths.”

Researchers found two areas of particular interest. One is the Western Transverse Range Block that lies below Santa Barbara. About 18 million years ago, it was located some 125 miles to the south and hugged the coastline.

At some point, the plate swung clockwise, rotating more than 90 degrees and journeyed northward, like a mobile, swinging door. The lithosphere remained intact, while the area left behind the swinging plate, called the Inner Continental Borderland which lies off the coast of Los Angeles, was stretched. Indeed, the lithosphere is nearly 30 percent thinner in the area left behind than the range block.

“The fact that the Western Tranverse Range Block retained its lithosphere along its journey tells us the mantle-lithosphere (of the block) must be very strong,” Lekic says.

Another interesting feature is the Salton Trough, which encompasses the Salton Sea and the city of Palm Springs, and “is a classic example of rifting,” according to Fischer. Some 6 million years ago, the continental plate at this location was stretched, but the question remains whether it simply thinned or whether it actually broke apart, creating new lithosphere in between.

In the paper, the researchers confirm that the lithosphere is thin, but “we can’t tell which of these scenarios happened,” Fischer says. However, the thickness of the mantle part of the lithosphere and the fact that deformation at the surface runs all the way to the base of the lithosphere in roughly the same geographical location are new constraints against which modelers can test their predictions.

The team used permanent seismic recording stations set up by the Southern California Seismic Network and other networks, as well as seismometers from the EarthScope USarray Transportable Array, a grid of National Science Foundation-funded stations that is gathering earthquake information as it moves west to east across the nation.

To measure the lithosphere’s depth, the authors looked at how waves generated by earthquakes—called S waves and P waves—convert from type S to type P across the boundary between the lithosphere and the asthenosphere.

The results will be compared with those of another famous rift system in East Africa, from a study at the University of Bristol led by Kate Rychert, who earned her doctorate at Brown in 2007.

The National Science Foundation funded the study.

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